Raising hats

I’ve been reading J. B. Priestley’s (less than brilliant) 1936 novel, They Walk in the City. This paragraph struck me; a young Yorkshirewoman is walking round London one September afternoon:

But she recognised the Cenotaph and looked with interest, though without emotion, at the fading flowers and curling wreaths massed round its base. Her Uncle Ben had been killed in the War, but she did not remember him. She was pleased, though, at the way in which some of the men who passed by raised their hats so nicely to the Cenotaph, and would have liked to have told one of them about her Uncle Ben.

Priestley (who had fought in the War, and had been seriously wounded) is imagining the response of a younger generation unable to connect with events that still seemed important but which they could hardly remember. Last November’s wreaths would indeed have been fading by September, but the adjective applies to memories, too.
But the raising of hats. I’ve read several references to this. How long did it go on for? My guess would be until the late fifties and early sixties, when men stopped wearing hats. (Hats went from near-universal to rarities very quickly, I think. It happened at the same time as the exponential growth of car ownership. Did wearing a hat become a sign that you did not have a car?)
I wonder if anyone does still raise his hat to the Cenotaph. I doubt it. When I was a boy, we were expected to stand still and remove our caps when a funeral passed. Now nobody takes any notice.


  1. David
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Permalink


    An interesting theme and a social norm that you no longer see in the UK, or perhaps very rarely. I think that the practice of male pedestrians in Whitehall doffing their hats as they go by the Cenotaph is something that I recall being mentioned by John Galworthy in his fiction. The exact reference escape me but I will look for it. I also recall that Galsworthy uses the military statues and memorials that were put up in London after the Great War several times in his fiction to show his charaters’ emotional response to the war. I certainly recall he ststue of Marshall Foch near Victoria being used in that context. It struck when reading his works set in the post-war how much effect the war had had on a writer of his generation.
    I too recall when I was young that it was common when a funeral cortege passed by for people to stop and pay respect towards the decesed person.

    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this. I’ve found the reference, I think, in Chapter One of The White Monkey, set in 1922.
      He writes:
      ‘And removing their hats, they passed the cenotaph.’ – as though this was what one automatically did.
      The Galsworthy passage about memorials that I really like is in Swan Song. During the crisis of the General Strike, Soames goes to Hyde Park, and looks at Jagger’s great Artillery Memorial:
      ‘ A great white thing which he had never yet taken in properly, and didn’t know that he wanted to. Yet somehow it was very real, and suited to his mood—faced things; nothing high-flown about that gun—short, barking brute of a thing; or those dark men—drawn and devoted under their steel hats! Nothing pretty-pretty about that memorial—no angels’ wings there! No Georges and no dragons, nor horses on the prance; no panoply, and no panache! There it ‘sot’—as they used to say—squatted like a great white toad on the nation’s life. Concreted thunder.’

      • David
        Posted June 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        Many thanks for finding the references , it is a pleasure to renew my aquaintance with the novels.
        I thought I also recalled Galsworthy mentioning the Machine Gun Corps memorial and the war memorial near London Bridge Station in Borough High Street, but perhaps I am thinking of the work of other writers.
        it is intereting how great war memorials are used by different authors in their fiction.

  2. Roger
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    In one of the novels of Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion series, set in the 1960s, a character raises his hat as he passes the Cenotaph. However, I don’t think Raven can be regarded as an accurate guide to social behaviour.

    • Posted June 25, 2013 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

      Rarely accurate, maybe, but an enjoyable writer. I read ‘Alms for Oblivion’ back in the seventies. I wonder how the series stands up now.

  3. Nemo
    Posted July 12, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Here in the US the disappearance of men’s hats is frequently attributed to the fact that JFK usually went bareheaded and everyone wished to emulate him, particularly in the dozen or so years immediately following his assasination when he was essentially treated as a semi-divine being, even by those who had opposed him politically in life. I don’t know if JFK really had much to do with it, I think around the end of the 1950s some sort of meme developed that hats were for men in late middle age onward and that men in youth and early middle age began to shun them for that reason. Also, in this period hats (particularly fedoras) became associated with the Mafia and similar groups in the public mind thanks to TV and movies, thus a man in a hat began to seem sinister.

    • Tom Deveson
      Posted July 14, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      The last verse of Betjeman’s poem on the Death of King George V [1936] runs:

      ‘…Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
      Communicated monthly, sit and stare
      At the new suburb stretched beyond the runway
      Where a young man lands hatless from the air.’

      The word ‘hatless’, placed so significantly in the last line, suggests that it’s a marker of the generational change that is a main theme of the poem.

      • Bill
        Posted January 18, 2014 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        The other notable use of the term “hatless” in recent poetry is in Larkin’s Church-Going, where “hatless, I take off my cycle-clips in awkward reverence”. But, then, does anyone wear cycle-clips any more, either?

    • Posted July 14, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      There’s a book about this – Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of American Style.

      Steinberg, the author, is skeptical about the JFK theory. He proposes a much more gradual decline in hat-wearing in public, beginning in the 1890s.

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